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Rule, Suburbia

The Verdict's In. We Love It There
February 6, 2005 |
The suburbs have given us -- in terms of space, quality of life, safety and privacy -- much more of what we call "the American Dream" than cities ever could.
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The battle's over. For half a century, legions of planners, urbanists, environmentalists and big city editorialists have waged war against sprawl. Now it's time to call it a day and declare a victor.

The winner is, yes, sprawl.

The numbers are incontestable and the trends inexorable. Since 1950, more than 90 percent of metropolitan population growth in America has taken place in the suburbs. Today, roughly two out of three people in the nation's metro areas are suburban dwellers. "The burbs" have become the homeland of American success, with an increasing share of our national wealth and half the poverty of the urban core.

We may continue to decry them and make fun of them, in cynical movies like "American Beauty" or on spoofy television shows like "Desperate Housewives." But we have embraced the suburbs and made them our home.

For most of us, they represent both our present and our future. Over the next quarter century, according to a Brookings Institution study, the nation will add 50 percent to the current stock of houses, offices and shops, and the great majority of that new building will take place in lower-density locations, not traditional inner cities.

Once we acknowledge this reality, we can turn to the task of making the best of it. The suburbs have given us -- in terms of space, quality of life, safety and privacy -- much more of what we call "the American Dream" than cities ever could. What they have failed to do, often miserably, is to live up to their promise of becoming self-contained, manageable communities that can both coexist amiably with the natural environment and offer a sense of identity. The prospect of a nation crisscrossed by ugly sprawl corridors like Lee Highway in Virginia or Interstate 10 between Los Angeles and San Bernardino may be too gruesome to contemplate.

I'm the first to admit that most students at the architecture school where I teach -- like talented young people generally -- would rather work in the big city, designing cool lofts or arresting high-rise towers, museums and concert halls, than try to create something in the jumble of the suburban periphery. But the suburbs are where the action's going to be in the future. The great challenge of the 21st century -- not to mention the main economic opportunity -- lies in transforming suburban sprawl into something more efficient, interesting and humane.

That's because, despite the ardent wishes of urban advocates, the suburbs are becoming ever more ubiquitous. Instead of clustering in large, crowded cities, Americans are building bigger and bigger houses -- twice the size of those in 1950 -- and doing so increasingly in low-density, low-cost regions such as Orlando, Fla., San Bernardino-Riverside, Calif., Phoenix and Las Vegas, where job growth has also been most robust.

Many in the planning profession and others who bemoan the "cultural wasteland" of the suburbs will find it hard to swallow the reality that the suburbs rule. Others will hold on to the hope that higher oil prices will force more suburbanites back into dense urban cores. One city enthusiast, writer James Kunstler, declared on his Weblog last fall that it was time "to let the gloating begin." But I doubt that it's time for such new-urbanist glass-clinking. Suburbanization proceeded apace during the steep energy price rises of the 1970s; it has also accelerated in Europe and Japan, where energy prices are already sky-high.

Traditional urban America isn't going to die. Instead, city living, as urban analyst Bill Fulton has put it, will likely become primarily a "niche lifestyle," preferred mostly by the young, the childless and the rich.

But just as cities won't prosper if they don't cater to the niche resident, the suburbs need to evolve from a pale extension of the city into something more like a self-sustaining archipelago of villages. This concept has its roots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when visionaries like writer H.G. Wells saw movement to the periphery -- what he called the "centrifugal possibilities" -- as a bold alternative to the horrors of the contemporary industrial city.

This vision was widely embraced by both the right and the left. Friedrich Engels predicted that the overthrow of capitalism would lead to the end of the large mega-city and the dispersal of the industrial proletariat into the countryside, delivering the rural population from "isolation and stupor" while finally solving the working class's persistent housing crisis.

For the conservative thinker Thomas Carlyle, the growth of the industrial city had undermined the traditional ties between workers, their families, communities and churches. Moving the working and middle classes to "villages" in the outlying regions of major cities could restore a more wholesome and intimate environment.

Perhaps the most influential advocate of suburbia was British planner Ebenezer Howard. Horrified by the disorder, disease and crime of the Edwardian industrial metropolis, he advocated the creation of "garden cities" on the suburban periphery. These self-contained towns, surrounded by rural areas, would have their own employment base and neighborhoods of pleasant cottages. "Town and country must be married," Howard preached, "and out of this joyous union will spring a new hope, a new life, a new civilization."

Howard's great vision remains a compelling one, and not only in America. Today, despite differing cultural patterns and political systems, virtually every major metropolitan area in the advanced world is suburbanizing, and usually rapidly. The urban centers of Tokyo, Sydney, London, Frankfurt and even that paragon of enforced centralization, Paris, are either losing population or barely holding steady as both jobs and people flee to the periphery.

Yet the suburbs have largely failed in creating Howard's "new civilization." They lack a basic definition of what they are and the boundaries between them often seem vague at best. This is sprawl's most lamented and least admirable quality: It produces vast "slurbs" of undistinguished, unappealing space.

And yet, build them and people come. It's amazing, given that suburbs often suffer from a deadening lack of things to do. And then there's the traffic. This remains their worst defining feature. In Los Angeles, where I live, the hours wasted in traffic have doubled since the early 1980s. Fleeing to the farther fringe, such as San Bernardino-Riverside, is no escape -- the traffic there is growing worse at an even faster pace. Suburbanites around the country, from greater Washington to greater Atlanta to the San Francisco Bay area, all register similar complaints.

Ironically, this may prove the new imperative for suburbia's evolution. With transit to downtowns and other suburbs increasingly dicey, suburbs are being forced to supply an ever-wider array of basic needs, from cultural infrastructure to shopping and business services. They cannot lean as heavily on the central core, even if they wanted to. "In the San Fernando Valley, we have achieved our own kind of secession," attorney David Fleming, a leader of the suburban area's failed attempt to break away from Los Angeles, quipped to me recently. "It's called traffic."

The digital revolution has also made it easier for suburbanites to bypass the city. The home-based workforce has grown 23 percent over the past decade, according to the U.S. Census. A lawyer working in Thousand Oaks, an often excruciating commute from downtown Los Angeles that can take as long as two hours, can now do his job without braving the freeway except to appear in court.

The urbanization of suburbia -- the creation of a more sophisticated, self-sufficient community -- is already beginning. From the suburbs of Northern Virginia to the Los Angeles basin, cities are restoring the commercial cores of what had once been autonomous small towns. Often devastated by malls and big-box shopping centers, these downtowns once gave suburban towns a sense of distinctiveness -- something many now wish to recover. Other places are attempting to create whole new communities, with their own defined town centers complete with fine restaurants, smart shops and even nightclubs.

Over the past decade, for example, Naperville, Ill., has grown from simply another Chicago suburb into a definable place, with a well-appointed old town center, a lovely riverside park and even some striking public architecture. It is filled with pedestrians from the surrounding area. "Our downtown is what keeps us together," says Christine Jeffries, a civic leader in the community of 138,000. "It gives us an identity."

This new principle of village-building can also be seen in some newer developments, such as Valencia in Southern California. With a well-defined town center, paths for pedestrians and cyclists, a lake and a range of housing types, Valencia is closer to a traditional village environment than the prototypical sprawl suburb so common in the region. This model is being repeated in numerous other places, particularly fast-growing regions such as southwest Florida, suburban Atlanta and the outer reaches of Houston.

With this new development has come a relatively new phenomenon, the construction of large-scale cultural and religious institutions in the periphery. The suburbs are now host to some of the nation's largest new cultural centers -- the Music Center at Strathmore that just opened in north Bethesda, the Cobb Galleria Centre outside Atlanta and the sparkling Orange County Performing Arts Center in Southern California -- as well as a plethora of smaller, community-based arts facilities. And, at a time when churches in the hearts of many major cities are closing, new churches, as well as synagogues, mosques and Hindu temples reflecting suburbia's growing ethnic diversity, are rising in the outer periphery.

In the coming years, the opportunities to develop suburban identity will grow as baby boomers look to trade in their tract houses for something more walkable and compact. Some urban advocates see them headed for the major downtowns, but high prices, cramped conditions and distance from family and friends militate against a return to the city.

Instead, many developers see suburban villages as ideal places for the swelling ranks of empty nesters. "They don't want to move to Florida and they want to stay close to the kids," says Jeff Lee, CEO of a prominent D.C. real estate, architecture and planning firm. "What they are looking for is a funky suburban development -- funky but safe."

Village environments might also provide an affordable housing alternative for people who want to be in the suburbs, but can't yet swing the much-desired single-family house. It could also offer a congenial environment for singles and younger couples without children. According to the last census, the number of childless couples and singles grew more than twice as much in the suburbs as it did in the central cities over the last decade.

This redefinition of suburbia into someplace more diverse, interesting and multifaceted represents one of the most revolutionary developments of our times. It provides us with an opportunity to stop complaining about sprawl and start learning how to make better the places that most of us have chosen as home.